The Influence of the Net Generation

As boomers retire, business needs to understand what makes this Web-footed and 81 million-strong cohort work

Editor's Rating:

The Good: A fascinating look at how young people are transforming our culture.

The Bad: Some skepticism is in order—and readers may experience statistical overload.

The Bottom Line: An insightful, data-rich analysis with broad implications for managers, marketers, and politicians.

Grown Up Digital:How the Net GenerationIs Changing Your WorldBy Don TapscottMcGraw-Hill; 368 pp.; $27.95

On Christmas morning 2006, author Don Tapscott gave his 20-year-old son, Alex, an advance copy of his book Wikinomics. Within hours, Alex had created a community for the volume on social network Facebook. "By the time we were eating turkey on the same evening, he had 130 members in seven countries; seven regional coordinators; a president (Alex); a secretary, and a chief information officer," Tapscott reports.

One user had submitted a correction. "'Exactly how will Mr. Tapscott be contributing to our community?' said another—appearing to be placing demands on me!" Tapscott writes in Grown Up Digital: How the Net Generation Is Changing Your World. As you may be starting to guess, a main theme of the book is that youth have a natural affinity for the Web: "When I was 20, I could have never created a community with 130 people in seven countries," Tapscott says. What's more, he makes a strong case that the Net Generation is using the Internet to become very influential. But Grown Up Digital exists not only to praise the kids but also to offer insights into their habits, which the author says everyone from employers to politicians must study to tap their potential. Two caveats: Reader skepticism is in order as Net Geners have a ways to go to prove themselves. And at times the account gets weighed down by a load of statistical evidence.

Tapscott coined the term Net Generation a decade ago in his best-selling Growing Up Digital: The Rise of the Net Generation (1998). Even then he was inspired by his kids: In 1993, seven-year-old Alex was already e-mailing Santa Claus. At that time the Web was "a place for outsiders, geeks, radicals or visionaries," Tapscott writes. Net Geners—those born between 1977 and 1997—had little say, as baby boomers and Gen Xers ruled. But fast-forward to now, and Net Geners—81.1 million strong, or 27% of the U.S. population—are starting to put a stamp on education, work, family life, and politics.

Armed with nearly 10,000 Net Gener interviews and feedback from the likes of Google (GOOG) CEO Eric Schmidt, Tapscott says young people think, work, and play differently than their parents and older siblings, who often suffer from what Tapscott terms "nGenophobia." In fact, older folks may see many reasons to worry: Tapscott interviewed a Rhodes scholar studying at Oxford who gets all his information from Google rather than from books. Another Net Gener intertwines spurts of work time with video chats with family via online service Skype. A young Yahoo (YHOO)! manager, drawing on his experience with interactive video games, expects his people to regard work projects as opportunities for spontaneity and fun. Are you anxious yet?

As baby boomers retire, businesses will have to embrace this generation's quirks or face worker shortages. But such workers can be picky: In Tapscott's research, Net Geners say they want to be loyal employees, but they usually last only two years at a job. "So why do they keep moving?" asks Tapscott. He finds Net Geners reluctant to accept many workplace failings, from a perceived absence of collaboration to office bans on Facebook participation.

But tap their creativity, and this highly educated group will deliver. Take Best Buy (BBY), most of whose retail employees are 16- to 24-year-olds. The retailer recently teamed six young, tech-savvy staffers with three professional developers to build online collaboration into Best Buy's operations on the cheap. In weeks, the team created a wiki that lets the company's 150,000 employees contribute insights on competition and popular trends.

Net Geners have already become key players in politics. One of them, Chris Hughes, then a 23-year-old former Harvard roommate of Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg, served as Barack Obama's director of online organizing. His tools helped build a 1 million-strong social network for Obama.

With expectations running high, the President-elect had better not disappoint his young constituents, Tapscott cautions, or Net Geners will take to the streets—er, the Web. They are a mighty force out to change the world. As comedian and baby boomer Jon Stewart pointed out in a commencement speech several years ago: "We broke [the world]....But here's the good news. You fix this thing: You are the next greatest generation, people."

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